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Analysis: US to play the long game with Thai military junta, but not forever

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2015 ”YOU always meet twice in your life,” is a saying Germans used to tell each other, which can either be a simple figure of speech when two people say goodbye - or it can also be a reminder that no matter on what terms you part ways, you might have to settle your issues in the future.

When news broke that for the fifth Thailand-United States Strategic Dialogue a certain Daniel Russel would return to Bangkok, certain people within the Thai military government might have been seething at the announcement. The last time the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs was in town, he left a particularly sour taste among the generals.

In January earlier this year - not quite a year after Thailand’s military seized power in the coup of May 2014 and half a year since junta leader Gen. Prayuth Cha-cha was made prime minister - Mr. Russel visited Southeast Asia, meeting with then-Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn and those political stakeholders that have been largely sidelined since the coup, namely toppled former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, Russel also gave a speech at Chulalongkorn University, in which he said in no uncertain terms that the military junta’s crackdown on dissenting opponents under (at that time still active) martial law and the apparent unwillingness to foster an inclusive political discourse is putting a dent in the long-running relationship between the two countries. And indeed the United States sent early signals of initial disapproval of the coup, suspending $3.5m in military aid (which is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn) and scaling down the annual joint-military exercise ”Cobra Gold”.

These critical remarks led the Thai military government to throw a week-long overzealous, yet insecure temper tantrum, with Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth verbally retaliating by declaring himself to be a ”soldier with a democratic heart,” while being well aware that his ”government came from a [non-democratic] seizure of power,” but still telling that ”the United States doesn’t understand” what’s going on, only then to let his frustrations out by scolding Thai reporters again. At the same time, US Chargé d’affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned ”invited” by the Thai Foreign Ministry to receive a high-level earful and insisting to relabel the coup was a ”revolution to install stability”.

Eleven months later, Glyn T. Davies, an experienced diplomat, took over as ambassador, ending a 10-month vacancy that was less a snub against the Thai junta and more due to domestic political squabbles back in the States. However, his decisive criticism of the notorious lèse majesté law during his introduction at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) has drawn the wrath of ultra-nationalists, protesting at the US Embassy (and apparently the only ones allowed to do so) and even going so far as to file a lèse majesté complaint against Ambassador Davies - and even more amazingly, the police actually launched an inquiry.

With that in mind, the strategic talks earlier this week already came with some baggage - which might explain why the joint statement (which can be read in full here) after the six hours-talk has been rather nuanced in expressing what it agrees on, such as public health, disaster relief and combating human trafficking. Nevertheless, Mr. Russel himself made sure during a personal meeting with Prayuth that while the United States wishes to ”restore full engagement with Thailand,” it would only happen when it ”restores a civilian-led and democratic government,” and he also raised concerns on the ever-deteriorating human rights situation. Gen. Prayuth responded by explaining the junta’s ”reforms” to the political system before there’ll be any elections (if at all).

The current approach by the United States could hint at a few things: While the US maintains consistent concern over the dire human rights situation in Thailand, it also understands that things are not going to change politically anytime soon. Thus, the confirmation of Ambassador Davies was already an early sign that it needs an experienced diplomat to engage with a mostly uncompromising Thai military government that is going to stay longer than anybody initially anticipated - and his dealings with the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea before certainly could come in handy. Nevertheless, most Western countries have still stopped short from branding Thailand a pariah state, most likely to prevent from completely driving the country into the arms of both China and Russia.

But the U.S.'s patience isn't infinite, as lawmakers back in Washington have already expressed their frustration at the lack of progress (or rather the reversal of any progress). In a rapidly changing  region (with one neighbor in particular) that comes with new geo-political challenges and economic potential, it requires multi-lateral cooperation from consistently reliable partners. One such 'incentive' could be brining Thailand into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional U.S.-led trade agreement that already has Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru on board - that is IF Thailand actually meets the requirements and the military government can convince their otherwise FTA-critical political supporters, who have been largely mum on this matter so far.

The visiting U.S. diplomat Daniel Russel went on record after the bilateral strategic talks, stating he got a "full and respectful hearing" by the Thai military government, a slight contrast in tone compared to his last visit in Bangkok. That should not be mistaken as a softened stance though. The U.S. is prepared to play the long game with the Thai junta, which is persistently solidifying its authoritarian rule. And that probably will lead to more chances to meet again in future - the question will be on what terms?

Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015 After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States' diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama 'The West Wing', a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  "I understand that you're a sports fan?" asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. "Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!" replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president's Oval Office with their respective aides. "Okay, well - golf's not a sport. It's fine, don't get me wrong, but let's not you and I get confused with things that men do," rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand's military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military "Cobra Gold" exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year's drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as "a culturally sensitive ambassador" who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy's successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

"New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission", Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta - in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride - to fiercely rebuke Russel's words, summoning... erm, "inviting" US charge d'affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies' nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn't known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it's most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk - perhaps about golf?

Tongue-Thai’ed! - Tough week for Prayuth ends in another tirade

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 30, 2015 This is part XXIX of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

It's been quite an eventful week in Thailand and a challenging one for the military government. Not only did it feel the need to assert its sovereignty after it was "wounded" by the critical remarks by Daniel R. Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, on Monday (we reported), but also by summoning "inviting" the US Chargé d'affaires W. Patrick Murphy to express its "disappointment" (we also reported on that).

This diplomatic spat with the United States also kept Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha busy, who retaliated declaring that "Thai democracy will never die, because I’m a soldier with a democratic heart," and that it "It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work."

Those who expected that things would calm down for the rest of the week were also disappointed, because that's when the military junta really just started to get going. Within 24 hours it summoned four former ministers from the cabinet of toppled former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Surapong Tovichakchaikul, fmr Min. of Foreign Affairs; Nattawut Saikua, fmr Dep.-Min. of Agriculture; Chaturon Chaisaeng, fmr Min. of Education; and Pichai Naripthaphan, fmr Min. of Energy). This followed their public criticism of the military government, especially after the retroactive impeachment of Yingluck last Friday.

And then on Thursday, the junta ordered the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation to cancel an event scheduled for Friday. The German political NGO intended to present their annual report on the state of the media in Asia.

Given these developments, there was a lot of questions for the military government. So, at a press conference on Thursday, the media were asking General Prayuth about the summons - and this is what he had to say:

Unlike last year's summons, the orders given to the four politicians in recent days were not written into official documents or publicly announced on television.  Junta chairman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha explained today that formal notices are no longer necessary. "No need. The [junta] directly contacts and invites these people," Gen. Prayuth said (...). "I don't want it to become big news. When we invite them, we use telephones to call them for talks." (...)

When a reporter asked whether anyone who publicly comments on the political situation in Thailand will be summoned for "attitude readjustment," Gen. Prayuth shot back, "Is it the right thing to say those things? Is it appropriate to say them in this time? That's all. You keep making this a big issue with your questions."

"Thai Junta Renews Summons Orders to Quash Criticism", Khaosod English, January 29, 2015

And this is where Prayuth really got started...

When the reporter pressed Gen. Prayuth to answer, the junta chairman launched into an angry tirade.

"You will be summoned too, if you keep asking many questions like this," he said. "You ask unconstructive questions. I want to ask you, is it a right thing to do, challenging my full power? Even though I have such full power, these people still challenge it like this. If there's no martial law, what's going to happen? You all know the answer. Do you want it to happen?"

He continued, "I know that the media wants it to happen, so that they can sell news ... I am [the head of] the government. I have full power. Is it the right thing to challenge it like this? I have relaxed my power too much already these days."

Responding to a reporter who noted that the NCPO seems to be intensifying its crackdown on criticism, Gen. Prayuth shouted, "So what? So what? In the past, you said I was incompetent. Now that I am intensifying, you are angry. What the hell do you want me to do?"

Swiftly changing the topic, the junta chairman also scolded the media for publishing a photo of him inadvertently pointing his middle finger, which appeared in Post Today.

"I am not mad on power. You don't understand it. You keep picking on me," Gen. Prayuth said. "Yesterday, for instance. How can you photograph me like that? I was pointing my finger. You bastard. You chose to photograph me pointing my finger. This is what they call a lowly mind."

"Thai Junta Renews Summons Orders to Quash Criticism", Khaosod English, January 29, 2015

Just to give you a general idea how much of a tirade it was, just take a look at this video of the aforementioned press conference. As regular readers know, General Prayuth's relationship with the media is always a tense one with the former always being sardonic - but this here takes the cake!

Note: If anybody knows a better translation for the Thai swear word "ไอ้ห่า", please let me know!

Opinion: Thailand-US diplomatic spat a sign of cracks in junta's confidence

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 29, 2015

Frankly speaking, I did not expect to be writing about this topic so quickly following my blog post from yesterday, but here I am again further musing on the delicate art of international diplomacy.

What happened on Wednesday morning though can be regarded as an escalation of some sort by the Thai military junta. After already voicing its displeasure about the critical remarks made by Daniel R. Russel, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the junta seemingly doubled down as the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned W. Patrick Murphy, the US chargé d’affaires, to voice their displeasure again.

We reported yesterday in detail about Russel’s visit and his remarks about the political situation in Thailand, so I won’t repeat them here. What does bear repeating though is that it was so far the highest-ranking US diplomat to come to Thailand since the military coup of May 2014 and the subsequent departure of former Ambassador Kristie Kenney. And it was this significance that gave Russel’s remarks considerable weight.

Apparently, two whole days and a tantrum by junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (in which he called himself a "soldier with a democratic heart”!) later, the Thai powers-that-be threw the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit with the summoning of the US Chargé d’affaires - a relatively normal procedure for any country wanting to give another country's diplomats a high-level earful.

While both sides insist that it was not a summoning but rather an ”invitation” (more on that later), the public remarks by Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Paramatwinai were as blunt as they were contradictory:

According to the Thai Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Russel's remarks caused many Thais to be "worried and disappointed."

"Mr. Russel spoke about politics, instead of using the opportunity to speak about good things, especially topics that promote the relationship between Thailand and the United States," said Don, who used to serve as Thailand's ambassador to Washington DC.

"The aforementioned speech did not benefit anyone. It became news that negatively affected the reputation of the country. It is deeply disappointing. It is an interference in Thailand's politics." (…)

"(…) The United States does not understand Thailand’s political situation."

"If we comply with the [US] and lift martial law and it leads to problems, how will those people who are asking for the lifting of martial law take responsibility?” Don said. "In reality, Thais don't even know there is martial law. A majority of Thais accept it and are not worried by it. The people who are worried about it are the minority." (…)

"I insist that the military takeover in Thailand is not a coup, theoretically speaking," he said. "It was in fact a revolution to install stability."

Thai Military Govt Summons US Diplomat After "Disappointing Speech””, Khaosod English, January 28, 2015

So, apart from the fact that he claims that Thais both are unaware yet aware enough to be not bothered by the ongoing martial law and his rather curious definition of a hostile military takeover, he gives the impression that any criticism against the junta’s work is forbidden.

The junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth himself later beat the same old schtick as well:

"It saddens me that the United States does not understand the reason why I had to intervene and does not understand the way we work, even though we have been close allies for years," Prayuth told reporters.

Thailand warns U.S. to mind its own business over politics”, Reuters, January 28, 2015

Ah yes, ”they don’t understand Thailand!” That’s the old killer argument to discredit any rational debate on political progress regression in recent years, no matter from where it comes from.

Of course it’s incredibly naive to still regard the United States as infallible world police considering its track record this past decade alone, but that does not and should not lessen the validity of their criticism nor does it or should it lessen the severity of the Thai junta’s repressive actions ever since the coup.

It is evident that the military junta responds to criticism with the only way the army knows best: resorting to assertive bullying tactics as a demonstration of absolute, undisputed power. But that is just a sign that the junta is overzealous yet very insecure, as simple silence might have been a better option in this case.

Also, a "summons" or "invitation" by the Thai military government is still something entirely different to a foreign ambassador than it is for any Thai citizen. And as if it were trying to prove it point, the junta has summoned Surapong Tovichakchaikul, former Thai foreign minister under Yingluck Shinawatra, for his recent criticism of the junta. A military officer was quoted nonchalantly saying that Surapong may be "let go home, or invited to stay overnight at our camp to adjust his attitude (…)."

To go back to my original point: a certain nuanced approach is required when dealing with international relations. US diplomat Russel opined that relations with Thailand ”have been challenged by the military coup”, not a surprise given the downgrade in diplomatic and military relations ever since.

It’s called ”diplomatic” for a reason when one tries to bring across a criticism in the least offensive way possible. But to respond to that with an indignant outburst of hurt national pride is quite the opposite of that and - given the junta’s ongoing quest got international approval - distances it from any serious endorsement whatsoever.

Prayuth blasts US envoy's remarks, calls himself 'democratic soldier'

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 28, 2015 UPDATE: U.S. Charges d'Affaires W. Patrick Murphy was summoned by Thailand's Foreign Ministry Wednesday following diplomat Daniel Russel's call for Thailand to lift martial law (reported below). AP reports: "Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Russel’s comments had “hurt” many Thais and showed a lack of understanding of Thai politics."

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Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has rebutted a top US diplomat's calls for a more "inclusive" political reform process and the lifting of martial law. The general's response yet again shows the impossible task to convince the world outside of Thailand that everything under the authoritarian rule is normal. 

The art of international diplomacy requires a very particular set of skills. Skills that one acquires over a very long career. If both parties we're highlighting in this story actually had them, that would be the end of it. But that's not the case.

Last week we reported on the attempts by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to proclaim a meeting by four foreign ambassadors with Foreign Minister and former Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as supportive endorsements of the military's juntas "reform" plans, which turned out to be neutral courtesy handshakes at best - and in some cases polite, yet assertive reminders of the junta's ongoing repression of civil liberties, human rights and a generally exclusive political process.

In what can be considered as an addendum to last week's story, the 'Bangkok Post' reported on the meeting between Thai junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan with the United States' Chargé D'affaires Patrick Murphy, in which the latter is reported to have pledged that military cooperation with Thailand will continue.

That is especially noteworthy since shortly after the coup of May 22, 2014, the US suspended $3.5m in military aid (again, it bears repeating that it is still a drop in the ocean compared to the current military budget of $6.07bn). The coup also has casts doubt over the long-running annual regional military exercise "Cobra Gold", which will likely be scaled down when it takes place in February. However what was not reported - and had to be later tweeted out by the US Chargé d'affaires himself - is that Mr. Murphy also told General Prawit that the "US-Thai relationship will not return to capacity until democracy restored."

This week saw another round of bilateral back-and-forth when the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel visited Thailand (among other countries in Southeast Asia), the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to travel to Thailand in an official capacity since the coup.

Apart from meeting Thai junta Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak, former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra (her first semi-public appearance ever since she was retroactively impeached last Friday, thus banning her from politics for the next five years) and Abhisit Vejjajiva (remember him? where he and his “Democrat” Party blamed “corruption and abuse of power” for last year’s political deadlock), Mr. Russel also made these remarks during an event at Chulalongkorn University:

The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. (…)

The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.

We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now (…), we’re not attempting to dictate (…) But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative — a narrow, restricted process — carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process. (…)

I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities — the same authorities that conducted the coup — and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven. (…)

Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important stepsas part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country.

Remarks by Daniel R. Russel at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, January 26, 2015 via United States Department of State

These indeed are very critical, if not quite damning, words by the American diplomat towards the Thai military junta and the political situation in Thailand as a whole. It was just a matter of time until junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha responded to this in his usual manner – and while at first he shrugged it off, he didn’t disappoint:

“Thai democracy will never die, because I’m a soldier with a democratic heart. I have taken over the power because I want democracy to live on,” the junta-leader-cum-prime minister declared, adding that the situation in Thailand was unique, as nowhere else was a coup staged to restore democracy“We are building democracy every day… I did not seize power to give money away to this or that person or take it as my own property.

“Although this government came from a seizure of power, it happened because there was no [effective] government [at the time]. Though there was a government, it was as good as not having one. Where was Yingluck [Shinawatra]? She couldn’t perform her duty” because she had been removed by the Constitution Court, Prayut said.

He added that people should recognise the fact that Thailand is still free.

Prayut rebuts US snub“, The Nation, January 28, 2015

Apart from being spouting what can only be described as an early contender for the most bafflingly preposterous thing said by the junta this year already (compare with last year’s entries), Gen. Prayuth also claimed that “as many as 21 envoys had met with the current administration and understood the situation in Thailand.”

And there lies the crux of this whole issue: Not only does the military junta – willingly or not – confuse acknowledgment of their rule with approval, but also doesn’t seem to care whether or not it actually further damages their credibility, which leads to the question who the military court is actually pandering to with their dizzying spin on the narrative?